INDIANAPOLIS – For the 13-year period from 1998-2010, the identity of the Colts was that of a team not shy of passing…and passing.
The numbers fit the perception. The Colts ran less than 42 percent of the time while Peyton Manning averaged almost 23 completions, 35 attempts, 264 yards and two touchdowns over his 208-game career.
It was not an ego-driven approach in the least, it was just the tactic taken by the Colts as they pieced together 141 regular-season wins during that span.
When Jim Irsay's dynamic changed with Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano, the approach was to have a more balanced attack.
Even with Andrew Luck under center, that mindset has taken firm root in 2013. No longer is the thought that big passing numbers are the lead factor in winning.
"That was pretty much the mindset coming in here," said Pagano. "We know we got a guy that can do it if we need to do it that way, but it all starts with the run game. You got to be able to run the ball and stop the run because it sets everything else up.
"It protects the guy so you don't have to. You want to be able to run the football."
Last year, Luck set a number of NFL rookie records, including one for attempts (627). The nature of the season tipped the balance, but this year finds a near-seismic shift the other way as the Colts own a 149.5 ground average over four games, never rushing fewer than 26 times an outing.
"I think it's great, a running game is awesome," said Luck. "It's great to have the run game to get going. I don't think that it's where (Pep Hamilton) wants it to be yet. We'll still try to get to that point, and it does a help in the passing game. Pep has done a great job of bringing that vision, and I think that Coach Pagano's vision is the same thing."
In running 40 times for 184 yards in a 27-7 win at San Francisco, Pagano said it was a signature-type performance the team could reflect on as it builds more such future efforts.
"In order to build a program for sustained success, win a lot of games and then have the opportunity to win multiple championships, I think you got to have balance," said Pagano. "You got to be rock solid in all three phases. That's what we're trying to be. We want to be tough and hard-nosed and physical."
Indianapolis Colts Offensive Approach 1998-Present
Pagano says some teams have an identity on one side of the ball, and whether it is on offense or defense varies by organizations. Not saying those approaches are ego-driven, he still wants any egos in Indianapolis "checked at the door" so the focus is on a full-team identity.
A seasoned pro like Antoine Bethea is all-in with the approach.
"It's very important because at the end of the game, it's a team game, a team game," said Bethea. "It's 53 guys going in there trying to get the work done and making it happen.
"So on Sunday, it's not just one guy. It's not just two guys. It's just not an offense or the defense. It's 53 guys focusing on one goal, and I think we've been doing a great job. Coach (Pagano) has been doing a great job instilling it into everybody."
Oddly, Luck's averages over 20 games (21 completions, 38 attempts, 265 yards) replicate Manning's, but the new approach will correct that over time.
Luck, like Bethea, is on board completely and never felt under the gun to carry the load himself.
"I never felt like I had to throw for 300 or 350 (yards)," said Luck. "I don't think I've ever gone into a game saying, 'I have to hit these benchmarks, or else we won't win the game.'
"Taking care of the football would be the more important thing. We throw the ball. We take our chunks. There's only going to be so many chunk opportunities. I have to make sure I'm on my stuff to hit those chunks. The burden, I've never felt that way.
"(You've) got to be able to run the ball and on defense, you got to be able to stop the run. We've all bought in and it's fun to be a part of."